The stations in our photo essay—once humming with humanity—are now colossal relics. The photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre tell Edward Carr about abandoned edifices

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

Central stations are built to be crowded and restless. They are springboards for people who have somewhere else to go and someone else to see. They quicken the pulse with the anticipation of movement and the promise of something new. City stations are also symbols. Trains thrust into them, people burst onto their platforms and then seep out into the surrounding streets—as if Freud himself had a hand in their design.

The stations on these pages sought to deny all this transience. Not since the medieval masons tried to render God in buttresses and vaults had so much stone been devoted to the assertion of permanence. Even so, the trains stopped coming and the crowds dried up. Their empty booking halls stand as monuments to all that is fleeting and half-remembered. Their waiting rooms echo to the ghosts of vanished lives.

The nostalgia of abandoned buildings is central to the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the two French photographers who took these pictures. Last spring we published their photo essay on America’s industrial ruins—mighty symbols of modernity that were somehow overtaken by time. Here is something even stranger: vast public spaces without any people. "These stations have become the starting point for a voyage into the past," says Marchand. "They are rich symbols of an age that has disappeared."

Marchand and Meffre are ironists with a particular interest in the early-20th-century belief in progress. The two American subjects here, Michigan Central Station in Detroit (completed in 1913, above), and the Central Terminal in Buffalo, New York (1929), were once towering statements of self-belief. When Canfranc, in north-eastern Spain, opened in 1925, as a celebration of a new railway line across (and under) the Pyrenees to France, it was Europe's second-biggest station. And, when the Saint Martin métro station opened in 1913, Paris throbbed with artistic invention.

At one level the stations' failure was prosaic. "It was partly because of poor planning," Meffre says. Barely three minutes’ walk from Strasbourg Saint-Denis, Saint Martin was just too close to the next stop: it attracted passengers but could not pay its way.  It shut in 1939 and reopened only briefly after the war. The other stations, by contrast, were too remote. Vast Canfranc Estación, all 241 metres of it, is a folly in the middle of nowhere, marooned about 100km east of Pamplona. And the stations in Detroit and Buffalo were shunted a few crucial kilometres away from downtown—enough to cut them off from the lifeblood of their cities.

These stations were blighted by hubris as well as miscalculation. The planners, steeped in the certainties of their day, imagined that Detroit and Buffalo would continue their heady expansion and that the stations themselves would become magnets for urban development. Their dreams were shattered by the tragedies of the first world war and the Great Depression. Neither station ever properly connected with the city it was supposed to serve.

Despite being bold statements of the future, the projects fatally misjudged progress itself. As the Michigan Central Station took shape in Detroit, Henry Ford was building a car plant nearby. When the station opened, trains were the only way to cross America. But the locomotive would soon be supplanted by the internal-combustion engine. And, except for a burst of activity during the second world war, the station suffered decades of decline.

Perhaps it counts as redemption, then, that the very same hubris helped save the station buildings. Michigan Central, the Buffalo Central Terminal and Canfranc are all so big that, once the last train pulled out, demolishing them was unfeasibly expensive. As industrial decline set in to the north-eastern United States, the demand for land was modest. So the stations passed from owner to owner. Like fading stars, they have taken cameo roles in all sorts of film, television and music videos—Canfranc briefly became part of Russia in "Doctor Zhivago", Buffalo Central Terminal featured in episodes of  "Ghost Hunters Academy", and Michigan Central was recently the backdrop to the video for the single "White Noise" by the London duo AlunaGeorge.

Over the years, the stations were gradually stripped of everything valuable. They became the haunt of graffiti artists. But they also became local landmarks. These days, townspeople protect Michigan Central and Buffalo Central Terminal. They fight off threats of demolition. They raise money for restoration work. They even nurture the hope that America’s new high-speed trains might once again pull in to their platforms.

Marchand and Meffre, though, love the stations' dereliction. "They are so beautiful," says Marchand, "so evocative."  The photographers work with a four-by-five inch large-format colour camera. "It’s the best way to capture the sombre texture and the atmosphere," says Meffre. "Black and white would just interpose a fake past between us and them, when there’s no need. These stations, just the way they are, evoke a time that is lost to us for ever."

Edward Carr is foreign editor of The Economist and editorial director of Intelligent Life